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Leadership Drives Innovations: A Critical Element in Creating a Successful School

Related Tags: Assessment, All Grades
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Why are some schools more successful at implementing new ideas, projects, or programs than others? While there are many factors responsible for successful schools, I've noticed that the critical ingredient for success is always leadership. By leadership, I mean the quality of someone who visibly champions and diffuses the innovation schoolwide or districtwide.

Most people think the leader is a superintendent, a district administrator, a program director, or a principal. However, I've learned that the leader often is a teacher, a student, or someone else respected by others. The leader is someone others will listen to and follow.

At the districts and schools where I work, the meaningful and effective use of technology is usually the result of this leader's ability to

  • communicate and share a common vision
  • provide timely technical support
  • provide relevant professional development
  • comprehend and interpret standards
  • assess programs.

The George Lucas Educational Foundation has showcased many examples of successful implementations of innovations resulting from effective leadership. I frequently use these examples to show my clients what it looks like when leadership is effective. Notice that each of these schools has a leader who possesses that special skill to get buy-in from faculty, parents, district administrators, school boards, and students:

Sherman Oaks Elementary School, which became the "neighborhood hub" for the community. Fullerton IV Elementary School, where mathematics became a focus and students' comprehension and calculations soared. Union City School District, New Jersey, which changed from a district failing students to one where students can succeed.

As leaders, our work is cut out for us! Through this blog, I will be sharing what I'm seeing at schools and districts -- strategies for developing a common vision, technical support and relevant standards-based professional development, and methods for assessing programs.

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Ken Messersmith's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree that teachers are potential leaders in the effort to make meaningful changes in the classroom. My experience with technology, however, is that it takes an administrator to really make a difference. Administrators control the funding and technology innovation is expensive.

Especially, with Web based materials you need enough hardware so all students have ready access to the resources. The district must also have the infrastructure and technical support to make the system reliable. Teachers will give up or not even risk it if they are not confident that the system will work. I see a few teachers who spend their own time and money to use technology in the classroom because it is interesting and important to them but most teachers will not attempt to integrate technology unless they are confident there is support when they have problems.

The schools who are really making progress in our area are the ones where a principal or superintendent is on board to make sure the support is there for innovation.

Am I off base in this assessment?

Dr. Terry Doran's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Dear Ms. Lanclos,

I agree with your premise that leadership is found at all levels. In my experience, the political climate and an open, collaborative leadership style allows for the development of leaders on many levels. If the political climate and culture allows for this style, great improvements are possible. Without the political climate, you spend your time playing defense and expending your energy defending the approach not implementing the program.

You clearly enunciated the five characteristics of an effective technology director or coordinator, especially providing technical support on a timely basis. I would add that working within the classroom setting in the provision of support is a very effective approach. Teachers are "show me it works" people and once their natural skepticism is breached they are open to improvements in their classroom. As a former technology director, I found the inclusion of well trained technology aides as a way to extend expertise and provide support. We established this approach 15 years ago after seeing it at work in another district and the aides are still in place and now a significant contributor to the technology program.

Patsy Lanclos's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I totally agree that effective leadership from the superintendent or principal is the key to the success of an innovation. However, I have also seen that a strong technology director/coordinator or even teacher can "make it happen." Sometimes the technology director or other administrator has the vision for the innovation, can muster the resources and parlay the two into a successful opportunity for teachers and students. In one district the successful innovator was the Fine Arts Coordinator.

Patsy Lanclos's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

One of the goals is the institutionalization of an innovation. You have identified skilled aides who remain an integral part of a program as an important factor in institutionalization. In future blogs, the discussion will focus on the other characteristics of effective leadership.

Dr. Bruce Spitzer's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I wholeheartedly agree with Ms. Lantos. One additional vital aspect of the effective implementation of innovation is consideration of the organizational culture within which change is being considered.

Unless there is a "match" between the existing organizational culture and the efforts by leaders, it is likely that changes will not be long-lasting.

Consider this short case study: the culture in one particular middle school is such that the principal allows very little to go on in the school without his permission/knowledge. He knows the curriculum so well that he can tell if a math teacher is teaching the correct chapter on a given day. He so dislikes surprises that teachers need to ask permission to bring in a parent volunteer to assist with in-class activities. Little goes on in this middle school without his stamp of approval.

However, with regards to technology innovation and implementation, he is completely "hands-off" allowing teachers to use technology as they see fit. And little technology use there is. The status quo culture is one of "seek permission to do anything", so teachers are reticent to violate that culture in terms of their technology use.

In this case, the school would be better served if the princpal would state his technology use expectations. That is the established culture and teachers are comfortable working within that structure.

I am not making judgments about whether that culture (or any particular culture) is "good" or "bad"; rather, I'm saying that good leaders will recognize the established culture and work within its parameters to effectively implement change. Failure to recongize an organization's culture and work within it will result in a lack of effective leadership.

Daniel F. Bassill's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

In the article titled Risky Business, which details how business leaders are scrambling to push for change in our public education system, there are a few examples of how businesses are setting up their own learning academies. However, in my mind, there are too few examples of business acting as leaders, pointing their own employees, customers, dollars, etc. at schools and non-school organizations where they can be tutors, mentors, leaders, donors and change agents in the lives of kids.

I lead the Tutor/Mentor Connection. At I host a library of knowledge, including links to Edutopia, that anyone who wants to help kids living in poverty can use to become involved in strategies that help these kids stay in school and move to careers.

In the Program Locator section of this site, I use GIS maps to show where poverty is most concentrated, and where poorly performing schools are concentrated. Overlays of these maps can show where businessses, hospitals, colleges and churches are located, and where existing non-school tutor/mentor programs are located.

I invite businesses to ask their philanthropy and human resource managers to create an analysis showing where company resources are being distributed to help fund tutor/mentor programs, or where volunteers are involved to help mentor kids to careers. If the distribution of resources is not in the areas where a company does business, or where its employees or customers live, then I feel the business is not being strategic in how it plays a role in PULLING kids through school and into jobs.

Too much finger pointing aims at schools and not enough is focused on businesses, who have the most to gain, or the most to lose, if we don't do a better job of preparing more kids for careers.

The examples given in the Risky Business story are good. But if they are plotted on a map, as an overlay to where the sponsors do business, we'd quickly see that they only reach kids in a few places out of all of the places where a company has an influence and a reason to be involved.

In the Tutor/Mentor Institute section of the web site are a few other power points on this topic. At you can read about a conference that we've hosted in Chicago every six months for the past 12 years to bring people together to learn from each other, network, and raise visibility of programs working in poverty neighborhoods to mentor kids to careers.

One of these is titled ROLE OF LEADERS. I encourage business leaders to read and adopt this strategy.

john becks mentoring america's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Innovation drivers will always exist, but whether or not they will be noticed and acted upon mostly depends on the extent to which company leadership causes employees to use their brain at work. The brain controls creativity, innovation, productivity, motivation and commitment. Mentoring America

Leo's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I don know but why i don find such informative and profitable blogs so often,I suspect blogging world is becoming so small that we cant find such lucrative blogs like this one.

Leo's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I dont know but why i don find such informative and profitable blogs so often,I suspect blogging world is becoming so small that we cant find such lucrative blogs like this one.

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